Facilities (Learning Spaces)

Who's on First? Prioritizing Deferred Maintenance Projects

deferred maintenance


Regardless of intention, all methods of prioritizing deferred maintenance projects contain some subjectivity. Of course, some are more objective than others. As blogger, Seth Godin, said recently, “There are ratings and rankings that ostensibly exist to give us information (and we are supposed to use that information to change our behavior). But if we don’t know what variables matter, how is it supposed to be useful? Just because it can be easily measured with two digits doesn’t mean that it’s accurate, important or useful.”

No one likes a to-do list that contains carryovers, but that is what happens when you are unable to complete all the existing items that quickly use up available resources. That list, often referred to in the facilities management vernacular as the “maintenance backlog”, will likely contain a broad spectrum of projects ranging from roof replacements to parking lot resurfacing. Because many of these require significant funding to accomplish, they end up as a budget request item on the annual capital improvements plan. The issue is that once they arrive on this list and your resources are limited, how do you decide which projects to do first? Without a priority protocol, the “squeaky wheels” can often rise in importance. These are the projects in schools whose leadership has influence with the boss, or those schools that have parents and families that are politically well-connected.

One method that is used by many facilities professionals is a variation of the silo method to prioritize projects within each discipline or category, but not attempting to prioritize between silos. In this arrangement each project is ranked within its own category. Roofs are prioritized with other roofs. Technology projects with other technology projects. And then, once funding is secured, dollars are distributed to each category according to the percentage of the total that each category originally represented. The problem with this technique is that it assumes each category is equal in urgency. Although some adjustments can be made by listing the categories in priority order, this is often subject to political maneuvering. Categories that are historically at the lower half of the list rarely, if ever, get funded. Using this method also becomes troublesome when a high priority, but costly project is included on the list. In that case only one project in the category gets addressed, although another project in that category may be equally important.

Aware of this problem Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) Superintendent, Dr. Peter Gorman, asked his facilities staff in 2005 to develop a formula that would rank every capital project on one list in priority order. His hope was to develop a single list for capital funding in which every project remained in priority order and was not subject to influence pedaling or “cherry-picking”. The resulting formula, which placed projects in order based upon their “priority quotient” was adopted by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education and has not only been used by that district ever since, but also by other districts from Virginia to California. Like all other ranking systems, it begins with a comprehensive list of projects. As mentioned in the October 2016 School Planning & Management article, “Kicking the Can Down the Road”, the state of North Carolina requires each school district to report on their capital needs every five years. This work combined with a current work order review and interviews with the heads of each maintenance discipline was the basis of the capital improvement list. Projects for additional capacity and schools requiring complete renovations were also included in the list.

This is a simplified version of the spreadsheet that was developed:

          District Concerns    
          300 200 200 400 200 100 200 300 -1000    
Project Type
Category Order of Importance
Category Priority
Priority Quotient
Health and Safety
Legal Mandates
Currently Overcapacity
Overcapacity in five years
Overcapacity in ten years
Lifecycle Replacements
Logistical Impact
Remaining Total
Roof North 3 1 333.33 300 0 0 400 0 0 0 300 0 $100K $100K

Here are the column descriptions included in the spreadsheet:

  • Project type. Describes funding categories.
  • Location. If equal distribution to subdivisions within the district is important, this column can also be used to apply that criteria.
  • Category Order of Importance. A ranking from one to ten was assigned to each category. Roof replacements were needed to keep the schools operational so that category was ranked fairly high (3 -5). Repaving was less of a problem, so it was ranked lower (6 -9). If there is a significant difference between the importance of one type of project versus another, that was illustrated by a wide variation in the order of importance ranking.
  • Category Priority. The projects within each category of work were prioritized and numbered. This keeps the projects within a category in order. A high priority plumbing project is not put on the list ahead of one that is less important to accomplish. One way to double check priorities is to list each project in a matrix vertically and horizontally. This will allow you to compare each project A with projects B, C, and D. The simple matrix would look like this:
Projects A B C D
A   A A A
B     B D
C       D

Based on this comparison the priority order should be A, D, B, C. Since project D is more important than B or C. Urgency is one differentiator most commonly used. Others include potential to disrupt if not addressed and/or estimated project cost.

While it seems logical to do the worst first, there are some who would argue that you should also address preventive maintenance items. That could be done by splitting the category of work into two lists, one for those items that require immediate attention and a second for those that are preventive, which ultimately allows you to accomplish more and over time to reduce the number of deferred projects.

  • Priority Quotient. This calculated value is used to arrange projects in one list. The project with the highest priority quotient is first on the list. The quotient was calculated based upon the following formula:
    deferred maintenance
  • Health and Safety through Logistical Concerns. The district’s concerns were then listed and assigned a weight. The weights were proportional to the district’s priorities. An overcrowded school that also needed renovation was given more points than a school that wouldn’t be overcrowded in five years. The logistical concerns category was included to take projects that were unable to be accomplished (e.g. a school that was overcrowded that could not be renovated because there was no alternative housing available) out of the top of the priority list. The list of projects was then scored based upon the project specifics.
  • Cost. The estimated total project cost including contingency.
  • Running Total Cost. This was included for the purpose of informing decision makers who wanted certain projects included, but were unwilling to fund a capital request beyond a specific total.

Other criteria for weighted concerns could include educational adequacy or equitable distribution within political subdivisions. The criteria and their associated weights can be modified to conform to local preferences. The important issue is to agree to the method of calculation and the criteria prior to loading the spreadsheet.

There is no perfect system for putting capital projects including deferred maintenance projects in priority order. Clearly there are methodologies that are less complex than the one developed by CMS, but this one has withstood the test of time. Although there has been much discussion, there has been only one successful attempt to fund capital projects out of order since this protocol was adopted. Since it relies on the district to set weighted criteria for local concerns, it is not any less subjective than many of the other methods facility professionals use. However, it has minimized some of the budget wrangling that often occurs when the staff presents their list of recommended projects to decision makers.

This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of School Planning & Management.

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